Last week I became a member of that select group of people who can claim to have received a telephone call from the Jerky Boys. Lucky me. Also known as Johnny Brennan and Kamal, the two Queens, New York, natives were in town to promote their bold effort to move from phone pranksters, popular on the underground tape circuit, to mainstream comedy stars. Along with their two albums, the vehicles for this crossover attempt include a soft-cover book, titled The Jerky Boys: The Book and a movie, titled simply The Jerky Boys. For those who have managed to avoid the media blitz thus far, your streak ends here: The Jerky Boys, who have a large following on college campuses around the country, use a variety of stereotypical voice characterizations--fretful hypochondriac Sol Rosenberg, swishy hairdresser Jack Tors, Egyptian magician Tarbash and others--to annoy people over the phone, mostly people working in small businesses like restaurants or auto garages or doctors' offices.
Recorded phone pranks are a gray area in American comedy; these calls can be truly frightening or upsetting to the recipients. The two collections of Jerky Boys calls released on CD, though somewhat repetitive, do contain a few laughs. But what's actually interesting about them, sociologically, is how unfazed most of the New Yorkers seem by the antics of the Jerkys. When "Sol Rosenberg" pleads with a woman in a doctor's office to let him describe the problem he's having with warts on his "genitals and ass," the woman just replies "G' head." After listening to one of these albums, the impression you're left with is that calls like these are par for the course on a typical day in the Big Apple.
The call I received was far less spirited--the lads sounded like they would have preferred any activity on the planet to talking on the phone. Sample some of the Shavian urbanity of our conversation:
Me: You guys ever been out to Arizona before?
Jerky Boy #1 (Brennan): No. (awkward pause)
Me: Uhm, well, you're very New York. How do you think you'd do out here in the Southwest? (awkward pause) Jerky Boy #2 (Kamal): I'd shoot up some cactus. (awkward pause)
JB #1 (as Sol Rosenberg): This is Sol. . . . My shoe came off in the sand. . . . I fell and bumped my cock on a cactus . . . it was awful.
The above represents the most stimulating part of our chat. From their tapes, it's clear that the Jerkys, especially Brennan, aren't completely without talent--they have some of the speed and inventiveness of good improvisational actors. But on the phone last week they were dredging up the obscenities halfheartedly, dutifully. They seemed less like motor-mouthed wiseacres and more like a couple of reasonably sweet but bored kids from Queens, weary of the publicity trail and so sick of acting jerky on cue that it crossed my mind they might not be for real--that they might be the Milli Vanilli of prank callers.
MDNM A woman from the PR agency later told me that they chased her out of the room before each phone interview because they didn't want to use foul language in the presence of a woman. This small gallantry has its ironic side, considering their recordings. Still, it was sort of endearing--pretty much the only thing about them that is.
Their movie, unsurprisingly, is dreadful. It is, maybe, just a shade less dreadful than one expects--the director, James Melkonian, used the dingy Queens locations well, and he had the sense to employ reliable actors like Alan Arkin as the mob boss whom the Jerkys' calls offend; Brad Sullivan as a cranky cop; and the especially good William Hickey as the weird, raving old guy who lives next door.
But the Jerky Boys themselves--put through the paces of a standard farce plot built to allow them to use their character voices to get out of jams--simply don't have the confident presence of comedy stars. Pulled out from behind the anonymity of the telephone, they seem somehow timid and vulnerable, almost plaintive.